Kids and Modesty or, How I Got My Kids to Quit Getting Naked in the Yard

I think it's easy to fall into one of two errors when dealing with kids and modesty. One is the idea that the human body is bad and that we must ensure that our children hide their 'naughty bits', the other is a reaction too far in the other direction: that we mustn't give our kids 'hang ups' about their bodies by not allowing them to be free and natural since after all, they are just kids.

As with all virtues, I have found that the middle ground is the right place to be.

I was someone who erred on the latter side, thinking it was cute to let the kids run around naked. I figured that if they were comfortable being naked, who was I to take that away from them? I certainly didn't want to make them feel ashamed of their bodies, and I worried that any insistence that they cover up their nakedness would be internalized as shame.

But soon, I had kids that were five and six and still weren't magically developing an innate sense of decorum that would tell them that it would perhaps not be appropriate to come striding out of one's bedroom naked as a jaybird because one cannot get the top button of his pajamas undone . . . when we have company over for dinner.

And I realized that, like making eye contact with people when you are talking to them and not shoving the board off of the table when your mother (despite her best efforts to cheat to lose) beats you at Candyland, modesty must be taught and learned and enforced in order for it to exist in my children. It doesn't come any more naturally to them than good manners or good sportsmanship.

I also gained a better understanding of the Catholic Church's teachings about the human person, which helped me to understand that what I needed to teach my children was not shame about their bodies, but rather a proper respect for themselves and other people. Modesty is an intregal part of that.

So now, I have a twofold approach to teaching modesty.

1. Modesty is good manners.

Modesty is partially dependent on our culture. What would be appropriate dress that would make others feel comfortable being around me obviously could vary depending on the time period and geographical location in which I might live. But the main point I try to make to my children is that we must not attempt to draw attention to ourselves based on our clothing choices.

We shouldn't attempt to draw attention to ourselves by wearing not enough clothes, of course. But nor should we draw attention to ourselves by wearing clothing that is dirty, or mismatched, or has inappropriate text, or is not appropriate for the event.

A young lady wearing a ball gown to the public pool may be more covered up than all the other women there, but she would certainly be making a spectacle of herself with her clothing. If that's the reason she's dressed like that, then it's immodest.

We wear clothes to protect our bodies from the elements, and to allow other people to feel comfortable being in our company. My kids need to learn to make clothing choices with that in mind.

2. Modesty is befitting my status as a child of God.

The other side of the coin is not dependent on culture. I also must be modest because I am a child of God. That means that even if every other girl at the pool is wearing a string bikini, my girls and I are going to have our tummies covered. Now perhaps it will be noticeable that my girls are the only ones in the group without a bikini (fortunately this has never been the case for us!), but that wouldn't change the minimum standard of modesty that we owe not to society, but to our Creator.

I love that idea that God is the King, so all of us are adopted princes and princesses. I can just hear Merida's mother in my head reminding me, "A princess would NEVER . . . " wear yoga pants to Mass, nurse in an in-your-face manner, wear an old stained sweater with holes in it, show that much leg, etc, etc.

I don't think it's particularly helpful to emphasize to children the idea that our bodies are for our future spouses. While I think that that is partially true, I think that it is MORE true that our bodies are for God whether He intends us to have a spouse or not. And I think that it's more appropriate to understand that spouses become one rather than that they take ownership of one another's bodies. So I think it's more useful to emphasize God's claim on our bodies rather than a spouse's.

So that's WHY. But what about HOW?

HOW is going to be more dependent on where you live and your family culture and temperament (see point 1) but I can tell you what we do. And you can figure it out for yourself from there.

Babies under two have a get out of clothes free card around here. I do love naked babies. And anyone who has problems with seeing a nakey baby, just has problems. I can't worry about that.

But sometime between two and three The Rules kick in around the Tierney house, and modesty is part of that. We expect kids to be clothed in public areas of the house. They must change in bedrooms or bathrooms. Girls change in the girls' room, boys change in the boys' room (even though that's not necessarily where they end up sleeping). They must wear bathing suits for water play even in our own backyard (which is not visible from the street) just because I want them to understand that nudity is for private spaces only, not public spaces. And again, not because their bodies are naughty, but because the culture we live in requires clothing and because a Prince/Princess would never run around the yard naked.

We also have very similar rules for boys and girls in regards to modesty. Modesty is NOT just for girls. My boys can sleep without a shirt on if they'd like, but they may not come to breakfast without one. Shirts are required for boys and girls in public areas of the house.

My boys also wear shirts when swimming, mostly to keep their cheap Irish skin out of the sun, but also because I am personally more comfortable interacting with boys and men who have shirts on, even near a body of water. So that's how I'm bringing up my kids.

Beyond that, boys are mostly easy. Their wardrobe choices are pretty much: short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, shorts, pants. But I do require that they learn to match clothing (all my boys have gone through a green goes with green, red goes with red stage that they need to be coached out of), learn to dress appropriately for the event, and not wear costumes out of the house (unless, of course, costumes are appropriate for the event).

For Mass they always wear shirts with collars and dress pants and belts and dress shoes. It's not any harder to put them in those in the morning than it is to put them in shorts and a t-shirt. Then if we have other plans later . . . they change.

For us girls, I try to emphasize choosing clothes that look nice on us and are appropriate for our age and the event. Fortunately my nine year old has always preferred dresses anyway, which I think are easy and flattering for little girls. And she's in charge of dressing the three year old, so they both mostly wear dresses.

They do own shorts and jeans and t-shirts, because sometimes those things are more appropriate for the event. Of course, as my daughter gets older it gets harder to find appropriate and flattering and cute clothes. But they are out there. It takes some work to find them, but I make it a priority. I have found that I really do need to take her shopping now so she can try things on, which is a departure for me. I really prefer to buy things online and avoid trips to the mall. But we just went to Old Navy and got her a whole summer wardrobe (including a matching dress for her sister that Betty really wanted to spend some of her budget on!). I've also had good luck with Gymboree, although they are more expensive (we have generous grandmothers).

For everyday dressing, the girls and I avoid strapless and even spaghetti straps usually. We wear camisoles to avoid neckline issues, and we keep dresses, skirts, and shorts pretty close to the knee.

Shirt and sweater: Old Navy
Skirt: Anthropologie

Necklace: a street vendor in Nashville
Bump: 15 weeks

Shoes: Boden

For Mass I keep my shoulders and knees mostly covered. The girls keep their shoulders covered as well, but I don't mind if their dresses are above the knee, within reason.

We dress modestly, but I make a point of not dressing myself or my kids like we don't live in this country or time period. I'm unlikely to attract people to my faith and lifestyle if we're wearing clothes that set us too far apart from the people we meet. There is a happy medium.

Thanks to the ladies at Fine Linen and Purple for hosting What I Wore Sunday, to Grace for hosting Sunday Best, and to Rosie for asking me about kids and modesty!